by Kae Tempest – a new version of Philoctetes by Sophocles
Directed by Ian Rickson
National Theatre/Olivier Theatre – until 11 September
The title may be ironic but there is much to enjoy in Kae Tempest’s poetically embittered, anachronistic retelling of one of the lesser known Sophocles Greek dramas. It’s impossible to imagine it presented better than in Ian Rickson’s spare but impassioned staging, featuring a uniformly magnificent all female cast (at least, I think everybody in the acting company identifies as female, and I’ve scanned the programme for information to the contrary, but if I’ve made a mistake then I apologise). The Olivier is still in it’s in-the-round configuration and upon entry, as members of the Chorus wake up, greet each other and wander about looking a little like some of the denizens of the street that exist in real life just yards away from the hallowed concrete of the NT, Rae Smith’s cluttered, intentionally random set suggests we’re in for a sort of tropical Mother Courage.
Women existing in a war-torn environment is actually what this angry but measured script, where speech shades into poetry which in turn gives way to chanting and song to often hypnotic effect, is partly about. The Chorus are brilliant, healers who can turn into pragmatic looting vultures when the opportunity arises and privations make it necessary. Tempest’s muscular, gritty text draws alarming, if essential, parallels with the modern world, referring to a series of environmental disasters that have further ravaged the Earth, and it’s not much of a stretch to see post-Brexit Britain in some of the speeches decrying racism, pettiness, violence (“a shadow of her former might”).
Lesley Sharp’s bull-headed, damaged, oddly sympathetic Philoctetes, simultaneously clear-eyed and deluded, clutching his famous bow like it’s a life raft, is a masterpiece of character acting. She’s matched by a wildly impressive Anastasia Hille as a brutal but stiff-upper-lip Odysseus, the man who left Philoctetes for dead on this island non-paradise a decade earlier. Gloria Obianyo makes something affecting out of the young soldier caught between the two, the idealistic glow palpably dying in the eyes as the play progresses.
Grim and confrontational as much of this is, Paradise is also shot through with a sort of irresistible gallows humour that both relieves the gloom and further points up the darkness at the plays core. At one point, when the women prescribe wild garlic and oregano to treat a potentially fatal open wound, Hille’s Odysseus bellows at them in agonised frustration “I’m not a fucking pizza!”
All in all, Tempest, Rickson and this fine cast succeed in revitalising a little known classic and mining it for all of it’s modern day relevance in an evening that manages to be both thought-provoking and exciting, and not entirely without hope. It’s still sad to see the National as only partially open -hopefully the bookshops, restaurants and all three auditoria will be at full throttle soon- but it felt so good to be back.